In fall 2004, the school board in the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania voted to require that ninth-grade students be read a statement about gaps in evolutionary theory prior to the evolution section of the curriculum. Students were to be told evolution was just one of several theories explaining the origin and development of life on earth, and to consider alternatives—specifically a theory called “intelligent design,” which posited that an “intelligent agent” was responsible for certain “irreducibly complex” features of some organisms. In response, 11 Dover parents sued the school district. The resulting trial, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District , was a national news event with the potential to redefine how science would be taught in schools.

But it was also a divisive local issue in Dover, whose school district encompassed a community of 24,000 in a rural southern corner of the state. At a local paper, the York Daily Record , education reporter Lauri Lebo struggled with how to cover the trial. Though she had never been a science reporter, she soon learned that there existed virtually no controversy among scientists that evolution by natural selection represented the best explanation of how earth’s species developed. Yet the controversy over teaching evolution in high school biology was what made the subject newsworthy. How could Lebo cover both sides of the controversy in a neutral tone while staying true to the science? Was it best to frame it as a political story, a science story, or a courthouse story—and what did the answer say about how she should write it?

Lebo tried to educate herself as thoroughly as she could about the science behind the debate. By the time the trial began in September 2005, she had become confident in the subject, and ever more convinced that few scientists doubted Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. In fact, as she had found out, the theory was the basis of modern biology. Yet she faced resistance from editors who felt she should present a more balanced picture and devote more coverage to holes in evolutionary theory.

On October 18, Lebo watched in court as the foremost expert on intelligent design fared poorly under cross-examination. The plaintiffs’ attorney had, in Lebo’s view, revealed devastating weaknesses in his theory. She returned to the newsroom that evening to chronicle the day’s events.

Lebo carefully considered how she should write her story. During the first week of the trial, the plaintiffs had presented their case that the theory of intelligent design violated the very definition of science and was an illegal attempt to introduce religious instruction into science classes. Decades of court precedent had affirmed evolution’s place in public schools and overruled attempts to teach alternatives based on the Bible’s account of life’s creation. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had tried to show that intelligent design was simply the biblical creation story dressed up as science. Lebo had covered their arguments with interest.

Now, however, it was the defense’s turn to present its case. Lebo was convinced that the scientific evidence was on evolution’s side, but was it her job to judge the legal evidence? In court, each side of a case was supposed to receive an equal chance to speak, and perhaps the same was true of the journalism about that case. But Lebo felt that it was misleading to present a balanced picture of a debate she viewed as lopsided. On the other hand, she knew that editors felt her coverage had leaned too far to the pro-evolution side, and she worried that if she emphasized the defense’s poor showing, editors or readers might accuse her of partisanship. In the worst case, an editor might take her off the story altogether. What was a fair way to cover the defense? Should she simply describe the arguments presented that day, as she had during the plaintiffs’ portion of the trial? Could she give an accurate picture without picking sides in a cultural battle playing out in her town?